Autistic Anime

In discussion of anime online, it is not entirely uncommon for someone to say that a certain anime is “made for autistics” or that “autistics dislike this show because they’re unable to pick up on the subtleties of human expression.” While there is a clear problem in terms of turning the term “autistic” into this general sort of insult, I would like to set that somewhat aside and to honestly consider what the following idea: what if anime (or other forms of media) were intentionally made for autistic people?

This post has actually been in the back of my mind for a few years now but I’ve always felt uncomfortable enough with the idea of writing it. My worry has been that, in bringing up a serious topic such as autism that I know very little about, I wouldn’t be able to do it proper justice even within the very limited scope of what I want to explore. However, after recently reading a post by Alain from Reverse Thieves about how the desire for “good” narrative pacing in anime among different people is more of a “horizontal” structure of preference than a “vertical” hierarchy of superior vs. inferior taste, it prompted me to move forward. In part, this is due to the fact that Alain launches his argument from a video of a talk given by Malcolm Gladwell, and in watching more videos of him, I came across this video where Malcolm talks about the strengths and weaknesses of making snap judgments, where he explains that everyone has periods of what he calls “momentary autism,” or points at which people are incapable of “reading minds,” something most non-autistic people take for granted.

As far as my personal experience, while I am not autistic myself (though I’ve of course been accused of it as some point in my internet life), I did have a roommate who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and he made me aware of what this concept of being unable to pick up on emotional cues really means, and how difficult it can be to deal with it in everyday life. While he explained that he himself had high-functioning autism/Asperger’s, which meant that he could participate relatively well in society, he also was unable to participate in the humorous banter common among our group of friends at the time. This was partly because of the difficulty in picking up social cues, but it was also because surprise and moments of improvisation can be downright frightening. Instead, he would read up on jokes and prepare them in advance, so that he could contribute to the laughter.

This idea has stuck with me for years, and over time it’s transformed into the question I asked at the beginning. Imagine what a true “autistic anime” would be, something that does not assume the ability to infer people’s intentions as a default, but says, “this anime/cartoon/movie assumes its main audience to have autism and attempts to be as fulfilling for them as what is expected of the majority of entertainment for non-autistic people.” Here, the horizontal structure of different preferences as equal would include those with the inability to pick up on others’ emotions easily. Or, perhaps to take it further, what if the majority of the people in the world were autistic and as a result most of our entertainment had to cater to such an audience if it wanted to be successful on a larger scale?

Of course, this is the point at which I should be presenting various conceptions of what such anime would possibly look like, but I’m at somewhat of a loss. I don’t remember if I actually read this somewhere or if I’m making it up in my head, but I recall seeing somewhere the idea that anime as it currently exists can often be appealing to autistic people because of the fact that in so many works characters announce their emotions very directly. I think the idea is that, when Naruto shouts that he won’t forgive Sasuke and his cartoonish face has all of its features exaggerated for instance, there’s little ambiguity. Perhaps there could also be something more structural in terms of narrative, so as to foreground surprises or even be designed to encourage multiple viewings such that the content becomes increasingly familiar but also has more to explore each time. I do not meant to encourage the stereotype, but I have to wonder if the way works such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, Gundam, indeed even Naruto have created fanbases that work off of re-watching these shows and delving into their tiniest details (often regardless of the context of character motivation) results in a similar appeal.

I think it’s easy to tell that my own ideas in this regard are kind of rudimentary and lack extensive research and familiarity with the subject of autism, but I wanted to express my own simple ideas in the hopes that someone more well-versed in the subject either personally or professionally might be able to tackle this subject better.


8 thoughts on “Autistic Anime

  1. Ah, Malcolm Gladwell — the Dan Brown of nonfiction.

    That aside, the questions here are good. As much as I love Breaking Bad, I have no way of knowing how much of Bryan Cranston’s acting I’m utterly failing to pick up on. And, of course, this sort of thing varies wildly from one autistic person to another.

    Animation and comics in general may appeal to autistic people as well, voiced motives or no. There’s just a lot less information to have to process in a drawing of a face than in a real face. For me, Homestuck in particular stands out with all the ways it distinguishes characters who have the same basic body and whose dialogue is all shown in transcript format. (The “combinatoric” nature of the character design — Mad Libs with real-world references like “chess pieces”, “pool balls”, “Zodiac signs”, and “ordered pairs of nucleobases” like AG, CC, and TG — also appeals to my love of memorization.)

    My own idea for an “autistic anime”, which I’ve been juggling in my head for probably several months now, maybe even a year or more, has less to do with what you’re talking about and more to do with representation. It’s basically a riff on the stock anime plot of “boy discovers pretty girl’s secret, befriends girl”, inspired by Change 123 in particular, where the most popular girl in class turns out to be a closeted autistic. I’ve got a bunch of ideas for her character, but the boy’s still a blank slate to me. Like, even more than that kind of character usually is.

    Not that it matters — I’d never get such a story written, and it would never find its way to a Japanese executive’s desk. But still.

    (Nitpicks: “Asperger” is capitalized and used either in the singular or possessive, as it’s the name of the dude who identified the syndrome. Also, “people with autism” is entirely promoted by neurotypical folks in my experience, and it’s not something I personally favor — after all, we don’t speak of “people with tallness” or “shortness” or “maleness” or “femaleness” or “age” or “youth”, and I’ve never heard of anyone calling herself a “person with deafness”.)


  2. This always reminds me of the lower right comment by Anno here:

    That said, I never thought there was any merit in this idea. If anime were really “made for autistics”, it’s really just another way for them to insult said media by saying it lacks subtlety and is childish. Do we say things like Charlie Brown, Winnie the Pooh, and Looney Tunes were made for autistics? They all follow the same principles of exaggerated simple body motions and emotions.

    And hell, we could go right to comic drawings as well, or really any illustration which is simple enough. Actually, we could go to any storytelling medium at all which we deem is simplistic and “easy to pick up on”, and it’s not much different from saying the same about anime.

    Which “this anime is autistic” is just a dumb internet insult that doesn’t really mean anything, people actually saying “anime is for autistics” just insults both the media and people with autism.


  3. There actually is an anime for autistic people, IMO – the 1st season of Kimi ni Todoke. It actually helped me because people talk all the time. There’s no cringe-inducing misunderstandings, just clear, simple communication that I could use to match feeling to expressions.

    Sawako herself is an almost perfect mirror of how I thought, and how glad I was to simply have and be with friends, despite the lack of understanding.

    Incidentally, the psychiatrist who diagnosed me said that a higher than normal percentage of her patients were anime fans.


  4. I understand your difficulty of the labels and stereotypes here. Out in the world, people exhibit a wide range of emotions, from just a twitch of the mouth or a widening of the eyes or becoming tense, to full-blown over-reactions both physical and verbal. On the other side, the people seeing/sensing those emotions react to them with a wide range of responses, from no (visible) reaction to their own full-out physical/verbal responses. It seems that symptoms like Aspergers are just labels for a subset of these spectrums, based on medical evaluations. I know some people who are clueless when it comes to some types of jokes and humor, but they aren’t clinically labelled some way. Anime titles like Nisekoi wear their emotions and reactions out in the open, leaving little for anyone to misunderstand. Sakurasou had female leads at the opposite ends of the scale, and while Nanami wore her emotions outside, Shiina was almost a blank slate and it was a job to figure out her intentions, so medical labels wouldn’t have worked there. Bottom line: Two wide scales – ‘what I meant’ versus ‘what I heard’ are always shifting for everyone, so labels linking autism and anime are very, very subjective.


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